Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1837
Of all of Charles Dickens's novels, The Pickwick Papers stands out as his lightest, most comic work. I've always been a great lover of Dickens (1812-1870) and The Pickwick Papers in no way disappoints. It's a masterpiece of English comic literature, and what's more, a sheer delight to read.
The story is loose and simple: Mr. Pickwick is a jolly, light-hearted gentleman who has founded The Pickwick Club, a London men's group. At the beginning of the novel, Pickwick and three friends (romantic Tupman, poetic Snodgrass and cowardly Winkle) set out to roam the countryside, sending back reports of their adventures to the club.
But as the novel progresses, the initial premise is laid by the wayside as the action begins to center less on the four friends and more on Mr. Pickwick and his sharp-witted servant Sam Weller.
Throughout the novel's enormous length, the Pickwickians stumble into a great deal of trouble: lawsuits, carriage crashes, elopements, cons, duels and even jail time for Mr. Pickwick.
Dickens is trying his hardest to entertain, and entertain he does. The book really is laugh-out loud funny, even in 2010. Take this exquisitely worded passage:
"Because, sir," said Mr. Pickwick, considerably excited, "because you are too old, sir [to wear an outlandish bandit costume to a party]."
"Too old!" exclaimed Mr. Tupman.
"And if any further ground of objection be wanting," continued Mr. Pickwick, "you are too fat, sir."
"Sir," said Mr. Tupman, his face suffused with a crimson glow, "this is an insult."
"Sir," replied Mr. Pickwick in the same tone, "it is not half the insult to you that your appearance in my presence in a green velvet jacket with a two-inch tail would be to me." (page 229)
Dickens's comic invention is boundless. Quirky characters and bizarre situations are one of his trademarks, and he's already in fine form here. An especially amusing running joke is Mr. Winkle's incredible incompetence as a sportsman, even though he considers himself a bit of a master.
It's Sam and Tony Weller who are the book's breakout characters, particularly Sam, a sharp-tongued, cool-headed cockney who helps the hapless Pickwick out of many a dilemma. Tony, his father, is also about as colorful a character as anyone could want. The bonds between Sam and Tony and Sam and Pickwick are the novel's center.
Yet despite all the craziness of the novel's supporting characters and incidents, it's the almost saintly figure of Mr. Pickwick that, to me, is Dickens's greatest achievement in the novel. Pickwick is simultaneously larger-than-life and truly human.
A little more than halfway through the book, the comic tone becomes a little more realistic and there's some true darkness when Pickwick finds himself in a debtor's prison. Dickens's sense of drama is always a tad on the melodramatic side, but the prison sequences stand out as particularly well-realized.
One of the few things that I didn't love was that Dickens felt the need to embed seven or eight complete "short stories" in the book. These tales (generally being told to the Pickwickians at a pub or eating-house) are all good, but they take up a lot of space and contribute nothing to the novel's plot.
But Dickens remains the consummate reader's writer. The Pickwick Papers is a truly joyous reading experience. It is not shallow or superficial, nor is it deep and dark. It's a long read, but it's an enjoyable, memorable journey every step of the way.
NEXT UP: Philip Pullman's enormously ambitious three-volume fantasy series His Dark Materials.